Orbit-side Assistance?


In a recent post (Space Debris) we showed how space is starting to get pretty congested around our planet. As improved technology and reduced launch costs increase the commercial opportunities for satellites this trend appears to be going only one way. But with the harsh operating conditions at or beyond the edge of our atmosphere there will continue to be a non-trivial number of failing machines in need of repair. Today there are very few options available for solving these problems, as can be clearly seen by fact that almost 40% of all satellites in orbit today are no longer operational.

Started with the space shuttle

The idea of servicing machines in situ is far from new. During NASA’s Space Shuttle era, for example, the Hubble Space Telescope was repaired no less than 5 times with the Shuttle using its mechanical arm to grip the telescope and bring it into the hold for repair. This was justified by the huge cost and the importance of the telescope, but remains an incredibly rare occurrence in the history of satellites. Seeing the potential requirement for services of this nature in the future, NASA developed an ‘Exploration and In-Space Services’ division (NExIS) with the intention of extending the lifespans of machines, and even manufacturing components in space. China and Russia have similar programs and have built so called ‘satellite inspectors’ which have been tracked interacting with some of their own hardware in orbit. Given the secretive nature of these programs, however, it seems that little is known about their true capabilities.

Fill ‘er up

One of the key focus areas for development is in-flight refuelling. In addition to simple life extension, satellites are requiring more fuel to deal with the increase in unplanned collision avoidance movements as orbits have become more crowded. In the last month alone China, India and the ISS have all been forced to make unplanned movements to avoid collisions with other objects. As the number of bodies in space increases dramatically over the coming few years these events will become commonplace. Each movement depletes the available fuel for the satellites, shortening their useful life. In addition to this, there are numerous plans for operating in-orbit manufacturing, creating bases on the Moon and even missions to Mars, all of which may well require refuelling capabilities.

Orbital gas stations

The importance of this issue is gaining traction with a number of players already underway with projects aimed at meeting the huge future demand. NASA is working closely with the US public company, Maxar, to test their OSAM-1 program in mid 2022. This will include refuelling, alongside manufacturing and servicing capabilities, and falls within NASA’s NExIS program mentioned above. The European Space Agency recently awarded a contract to OHB and Thales Alenia Space to design and build a refuelling module for their planned lunar orbiting space station. However, the most ambitious plan appears to come from Orbit Fab, the US based start-up that intends to build a series of refuelling stations in orbit. The group aims to use tugs to drag satellites to the stations for refuelling. So far they have raised seed funding from VCs as well as more recently receiving direct investment from defence primes, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The group already has a number of world firsts; they were the first private company to supply the ISS with water, in 2020 they placed the first ever propellant depot into LEO and are now close to launching the first propellant tanker into geostationary orbit. The success of this small company demonstrates how open and early we still are in this next phase of advancement in space.


One of the big challenges for this next phase is making sure that when the tanker arrives at your satellite the nozzle fits. For this to happen there needs to be a standard fitting and, understandably, it takes some organisation. Fuel isn’t the only issue here either. Space agencies and independents have also been bouncing around ideas for standard electrical connections, grappling points and numerous other issues. The Europeans set up a standards organisation in 1993 known as the ECSS (European Cooperation for Space Standards) which solved most of these problems on a regional basis. But since space knows no boundaries this approach is too limited to be truly effective. The US is attempting to corral as many players as possible into their independent consortium known as CONFERS
(Consortium for Execution of Rendezvous and Servicing Operations). Initially backed by the US defence research organisation (DARPA) the group is gaining momentum and shows considerable promise. However, in the absence of any centrally agreed refuelling interface Orbit Fab have come up with their own system known as RAFTI (Rapidly Attachable Fluid Transfer Interface), and given their recent support from some of the biggest players in the field this just might carry the day.

Just the start

Mankind has been sending machines and people into space for over 60 years giving the industry the image of maturity, but this could not be further from the truth. The age of space commercialisation is only just beginning. As the industry marches steadily forwards towards asteroid mining and manned missions to Mars, as in-orbit manufacturing and bases on the Moon become a reality there is an enormous opportunity for innovative and agile businesses to stake an early claim and reap the longer term rewards.